I forget sometimes, sitting in my little studio apartment, the lives that go on directly beyond my four whitewashed walls. Then, later on, leaning over the balcony the first day the sun makes its remarkable summer comeback, I meet my neighbors for a short conversation that lasts just as long as our encounters in the hallway or in the elevator. Alone, I wonder what they are really like. What they do and what they think; how they survive and make sense of everything.
I imagine that this is what Charles Spearin (founding member of Do Make Say Think and multi-instrumentalist for Broken Social Scene) must have thought many times before he started The Happiness Project. Simply put, The Happiness Project uses the inflections of ordinary human speech as a springboard to compose music. On the surface, it is music and performance art, but beneath the sounds lurks a microcosm of modern urban life.
Some people have a bone to pick with the term “alt-country”, but over the years, I find myself reaching for it in place of other labels like “Americana” or “roots music”. In describing favorite artists such as Old 97s or early Wilco, alt-country seems to best capture the idea of what the genre is to me: American country music played by and for people who grew up listening to punk rock and have a lot more Ramones in their record collections than anything to come out of Nashville post-1970s. I have never loved any artist who could qualify for a CMA in the last couple of decades, so the only kind of country that speaks to me is either the old kind, or the alt kind.
Whatever you want to call it, San Diego’s John Meeks does it smashingly. His new record, Old Blood was released on Loud and Clear Records on May 18, and was produced at Stereo Disguise Recording Laboratories, brainchild of Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins. The new record became one of my most hotly anticipated releases of this year when I caught wind of the first single, “Been Down By Love”, which I rhapsodized about here.
May is shaping up to be a huge month not only for summer movies, but for music. Four bands that have released Album of the Year-quality albums are set to release new albums in the coming weeks. As a music geek, you may have looked forward to these types of “Super Tuesday” events when two or even three big releases dropped on the same day. However, the advent of streaming releases ahead of the release date has taken much of the luster out of these musical “Super Tuesdays”.
Almost a month before its May 17th release date, LCD Soundsystem is streaming This is Happening on their website. NPR is streaming the new Hold Steady and Broken Social Scene albums. And last week, The New York Times streamed The National’s High Violet.
There’s a youthful embrace for all things synth coming from musicians barely or not even alive in the ‘80s. As one who gasped with the crowd as the Cure took the stage without a drum kit and began the set by pushing play to beats on a prerecorded track, I’m enjoying the current offerings by bands such as Passion Pit, Friendly Fires and Two Door Cinema Club. Two Door Cinema Club began three years ago by a trio of boys in Northern Ireland when they were 15—do the math and be amazed. Sam Halliday and Alex Trimble actually knew each other in grammar school and began studying music together before meeting Kevin Baird. When a drummer dropped out, they experimented with manufacturing their own drum tracks and decided they liked it that way. Their name comes from a mispronunciation of a local cinema, known as the Tudor Cinema club and their new debut album, Tourist History, refers to the popularity of their hometown of Bangor as well as the band’s extended travels with their gain in notoriety. This follows songs on a Kitsune music compilation and an EP produced by the French record label last year. Tourist History is comprised of ten tightly composed songs which bounce along with shout outs, crowd noises and walls of electronic sound.
I discovered “Something Good Can Work” last spring and promptly put it in a prominent spot on my personal playlist. Its unabashed happy-go-lucky feel had me hooked.
Another favorite off the EP, “Do You Want It All”, leads off with manufactured high hats, guitar arpeggios and keyboard chords before Trimble’s sweet vocals. The next song, “This Is the Life” is a new fun find, cranking up a funky groove into another wash of synths before the vocals come in—the title becomes the chorus followed by ‘woos’ most appropriately. “I Can Talk” starts with percussive vocals which explode to a full blown rollicking sound to amp up the energetic approach.
“Eat That Up, It’s Good For You” also begins slowly with lyrics like “You would look a little better, you know, if you wore less makeup” as a reminder of the teen viewpoint but all is forgiven by another explosion of sound at the chorus with more cheerful shout outs in the background. Everything dramatically drops out to end with only the hum of a chord.
Tourist History can be previewed until May 5th on kcrw.com and the band will visit the station’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show on May 4th. It’s a live session that I already have marked on my calendar.
The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).
It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)
When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.
Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:
Music of the Carousel (1961) Sounds of Sea Animals (1955) Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965) Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971) American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009) Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964) Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975) Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956) Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975) Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973) Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)